I have often wondered what it must be like to be a humanist/atheist and to attend a humanist
funeral. I never have been to one and I'd be fascinated to do so. It seems to me that the finality of
a humanist funeral must be unbearably difficult. All of us, at some point in our lives, have lost
someone very close to us. It is deeply painful and the effects of such loss can be felt for years
after their death.
The regularly repeated phrase that 'death is part of life' is true, and it is so important that we are
able to talk about it without fear. Unless Christ returns before the day of our death, we are all on
course to die. That alone sounds desperately final, perhaps even hopeless. But as Christians we
know that the opposite is true, that death is the beginning of eternity. There is hope even in the
darkest times of the mind and emotions. That is what God's character is truly like; hope for the
hopeless, hope that out of darkness a light will shine out and expand our vision to something
I found this in a sample humanist funeral service talking about the life of humanity as being like
"The death of each of us is in the order of things; it follows life as surely as night follows day.
We can take the tree of life as a symbol. The human race is the trunk and branches of this tree,
and individual men and women are the leaves which appear one season, flourish for a summer
and then die. I too am like a leaf on this tree and one day I shall be torn off by a storm, or I shall
simply decay and fall and mingle with the earth at its roots. But, while I live I am conscious of
the tree' flowing sap and steadfast strength. Deep down in my consciousness is the
consciousness of a collective life, a life of which I am a part as to which I make a minute but
unique contribution. When I die and fall, the tree remains nourished to some small degree by my
manifestation of life. Millions of leaves have preceded me and millions will follow me; but the
tree itself grows and endures."
Unfortunately, the closest the above gets to looking beyond the here and now is reminding us
that we belong to a long line of humans in history on which we make our tiny mark and then like
a leaf, in death, fall to the ground not to be seen again. The only hope we have, in this humanist
case, is that we might do some good in life in order to have a small impact on the sap of the tree.
The moral: be as good as you can be for one day you will be no more.
A Christian funeral offers us something so much more than this, something so much better. Let
us continue with, but change the meaning of, the tree analogy.
Let's begin with the roots of the tree. The roots give the life to the tree, they keep it going,
feeding it and sustaining it. The root for Christians is first and foremost Jesus Christ himself. It is
he that gives life, it is he that welcomes us into the family of God's people, it is he that gives the
church its meaning, its reason for being, its life.
I suppose the trunk would therefore be the Church – not the local church, not simply St. Mary's,
but the worldwide universal Church made up of Baptists and Pentecostals, Lutherans and yes,
Anglicans, Jews and Gentiles who recognise that Jesus is the Christ and follow him in their lives.
The Church's foundation to which we belong is Jesus, he gives us life and reason and so we, as
the Church, receive our life from him, the root.
The branches and leaves:
I was sitting outside writing this, the sun shining and the wind blowing through the leaves of the
trees. Trees grow up and they grow out. Up and out. They grow up towards God and his
heavenly dwelling place, and they grow outwards, embracing the land and air around them. If we
are to see ourselves as the branches and the leaves, it means that out of the tree that is the
Church, and from the root do we come. We grow towards God; our eyes and the goal of our
existence are not here, but Above, and so we press on, as the apostle Paul says, towards the goal
to win the prize which Jesus has called us heavenwards (Philippians 3:14). We are not leaves
simply waiting to drop off the tree, we are branches growing up towards God, towards eternity.
But more than that too, we are called to live for others too, to grow outwards as well as upwards.
It has been mentioned many times that as Jesus Christ hung there on the Cross at Calvary, his
arms were outstretched as though embracing humanity, lovingly. We grow outwards, realising
what Christ has done for us, and responding by telling others of this amazing news!
But here's the major difference: we don't fall from the tree. The life-giving power of the root that
is Christ, is eternal. In the spiritual sense we are evergreens that never die, but sustained for
eternity, to live. It is not a hopeless life where one day death will be as a leaf falling to the
ground, decaying and becoming nothing, but rather that Christ offers us continued, perfected life
in the unending presence of God.
As we are faced with the wonder of this truth, we are also faced with an alternative, which may
cause shock and discomfort, but nonetheless must be engaged with. Christ Jesus came to win
eternity for his followers, but what if he is rejected? What happens if we do not follow him?
What if those within the Church sit idly by, unconcerned by those walking outside it without
hope, without Jesus, what if we do not speak of the Gospel with those who so desperately need
it? There is an alternative to the tree that belongs to the Kingdom of God, and that is where the
leaves do fall, and are lost and blown away, the unbearable reality of eternity without God. God
could have saved everybody, but then we would be left with no decision to make, no ability to
take responsibility for our own decisions; we could charge God with treating us like robots,
unable to make choices ourselves, relying on him to make us do what is right. Instead, he longs
to be chosen, to be followed and loved by our choosing to accept his greatest gift of all, the
sacrifice that brings us eternity with him, the death that brings life, of Jesus the Son.
We therefore suggest, as Christians, that you do not need to be satisfied with trying to do your
best in life to be good, to have a purpose. If you feel like life has been tough and there has been
little good, this doesn't mean you that you have no hope. Rather, I submit to you that the love of
God goes so far that even if you have messed up, and badly, like many of us have, you can still
have a place on that everlasting evergreen tree of Life, if we just turn to Christ, accept his love
and offering of himself for us, repent, turn away from what is ungodly and turn towards him to
live Godly lives. We remember that it was not that we had to first love him, but that, while we
were still sinners and therefore still, in essence, enemies of God, he first loved us and sent his
son for us (1 John 4:10; Romans 5:10).
Christian faith is good news. You do not need to just be a leaf that withers and dies and has no
hope and no future, but instead you can have eternal life, where there is no more pain, no evil, no
sadness, nothing but joy once life on earth ends. This is what we offer in a Christian funeral. I
urge each of us to consider where our lives are heading, and how sure we might be, if we believe
it, that there is no potential life after death. As the 1984 Church in Wales Volume 2 Prayer Book
puts it in a funeral, "In the presence of death, Christians have sure ground for hope and
confidence, and even for joy, because the Lord Jesus Christ, who shared our human life and
death, was raised again triumphant and lives for evermore. In him his people find eternal life,
and, in this faith, we put our whole trust in his goodness and mercy."
If this has raised any questions for you, please do get in contact with one of us clergy, and we
will be more than willing to discuss these with you further.
May the blessing of God and his love, peace, and hope, in life as well as death, be with you and
those you love, now and always.
Written by Revd Joel Barder